Ethics Quote Of The Month: Actor Peter Fonda (1940-2019)

“I believe that one is only truly free when learning, and one can only learn when one is free.”

—-Actor Peter Fonda, Henry’s son, Jane’s brother, and Bridget’s father, who died yesterday.

Memorable ethics quotes come from unexpected places sometimes, and this is a striking example. It’s also important, wise and true. I have never heard or read of anyone putting that thought quite that way.

Fonda’s observation focuses nicely on the roots of today’s existential cultural peril. A vast segment of the population has grown to adulthood with insufficient or defective knowledge, making them easy prey for power-seekers, demagogues and charlatans peddling theories and nostrums that a basic comprehension of history would instantly undermine. Instead of being imbued by their teachers and parents with intellectual curiosity, a healthy and intrinsically American suspicion of authority, and a reluctance to follow mobs of any kind, they lack the intellectual defenses to fend off ideological cant, the most dangerous of which holds that society will only be made virtuous by the unthinking acceptance of approved doctrine. That requires locking in dogma early, and creating a public that is inoculated against learning by being cut off from non-conforming information.

It was tragic and ironic for Fonda to say this, as he is a Sixties icon, and according to his friends and family, a true believer in Peace, Pot and Love to the very end. The Sixties began as a romantic and idealistic rebellion against rigid societal conventions and restrictions and the refusal to learn and change, but the observation that we all risk becoming what we once hated most was never more prescient. The Sixties Culture quickly metastasized into  an increasingly brutal ideology that exchanged education —learning—for indoctrination and wilful ignorance, and the freedom to learn for organized hostility towards non-conformity. The end result now looming appears to be a gradual restriction of liberty itself.

A second irony is that powerful antidotes for the threatened loss of a mindset supporting learning and freedom lie in some of the best films of  Peter’s Hollywood great father, Henry Fonda. Although Henry himself often confessed to having a weak character and only feeling worthwhile when he was portraying individuals far more virtuous than he was, Fonda’s trademark film role was the imperfect man who refused to follow the mob, who set out to teach those around him to be better, wiser, more courageous and ethical, and who still managed to keep learning, no matter how smart, wise or accomplished he was to begin with.

I was shown many of these films in school; the rest I watched with the encouragement and commentary of my father. My recommended list of ten out of Henry Fonda’s diverse repertoire of histories, comedies, dramas, Westerns and spectacles, would be Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Ox-Bow Incident (1942), Mister Roberts (1955), which is my personal favorite, 12 Angry Men (1957), Advise & Consent (1962), Spencer’s Mountain (1963), which was the inspiration for “The Waltons,” The Best Man (1964), and Fail-Safe (1964).

It should not be surprising that Fonda was chosen to play Clarence Darrow on Broadway in a one man show. Fonda’s Darrow was a lot more virtuous than the real man, but the real Darrow was as dedicated to freedom of thought and the importance of learning and evolving throughout life as any American historical figure.

I doubt that one in fifty Americans under the age of 30 have seen any of these films, or know who Henry Fonda was. Don’t think that doesn’t matter.

14 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Month: Actor Peter Fonda (1940-2019)

  1. From Althouse: “That movie [Easy Rider] was so important to us young Boomers, half a century ago.”

    Ugh. Speak for yourself, Ann. The movie struck me as bogus, even at the time. We were fed a lot of baloney as kids back then. I’ve had ham sandwiches that were more important, meaningful and memorable than “that movie.” And let’s hear it for his older sister’s magnum opus: “Barbarella.” Sheesh.

    • I agree; “Easy Rider” was, for me, the ultimate 60’s hype. But classics are classics and icons are icons. There’s no denying that the thing touched a nerve and had cultural impact.

      • Hanoi Jane was a classic as well.

        But I’m just in a bad mood. My 50th high school reunion is this fall and the group email chain blathering about how wonderful everyone and everything was in 1969 is annoying to the point of being depressing. Bad case of Boomer self-aggrandizement. A bad disease.

      • She looked great. Not any acting involved that I can recall. The movie just struck me as silly and non-sensical to the point of being confusing and disappointing. She was 22 when she married Roger Vadim, then aged 37. The lives these people lead. Both serial marry-ers.

        Remember the obligatory cheesecake picture in every issue of Time Magazine? Usually in the movie review section. I’m sure Jane was featured in one of them. Wasn’t the reviewer Judith Crist? Great having a euphemism as a name.

    • Trying to understand better American films I saw Easy Rider maybe 8 months ago. I watched it twice because the first time I did not get especially impressed. But the Criterion Edition copy of the film had interviews where people were making such a big deal of it, so I watched it again. My impression did not change much.

      It is so strange, I cannot figure it out: when an artist — or really when a person, any person — takes the step to choose to descend on the moral and ethical level, they do so as an act of taking advantage of their freedom and liberty. They realize that by breaking with conventions, or taking a revolutionary/rebellious position, that many different doors will open. Just as the film Easy Rider opened the door to dozens of films, some of them good and entertaining, in the 70s (said to be one of the Golden Eras of American film-making).

      But the part that I can’t quite grasp, or the part that I have a conflict with, is the larger, general result from the motion of ‘descent’ (decadence, corruption, nonchalance). Every part of Easy Rider starting with the initial drug deals documents a down-descent: it celebrates it. Yet there is great fun (I guess one must admit) in destructive, irresponsible ‘fun’. The thing about Easy Rider is that it does not demonstrate that the alternative they sought and the people they came in contact with were achieving anything noteworthy at all.

      Yet, it is not un-true from what I have been able to understand by my researches that the ‘hippy rebellion’ has not resulted in positive things. Even if the general descent was overall destructive, as they are going down many positive things were brought out. Certainly the music was very good. Very innovative. There seemed to be much more ‘honest communication’ between people or the doors to that were opened up. Therapy, group-therapy, lots of talking about ‘feelings’ and one’s ‘situation’. Even the feminism movement, if it is agreed (it is not of course) that it was overall destructive to the family and destructive of women’s respect for men and man, leading to a Marxian undermining and the truly sick notion that women can be or should be ‘independently powerful’ and directing outside of their relationships, even the feminism movement opened up the doors to tremendously amplified communication, first between women ‘sharing their stories’ but which then seeped out generally into the culture. Maybe the other field that was opened up by the Sixties Movement was in ecology and also physical health and healing.

      All of this seemed to have been presaged in the film Easy Rider. Similar perhaps to Easy Rider (and I guess it arose out of it) was the film Five Easy Pieces which seemed to me a far better film. How many times can you watch Easy Rider?

      The other film that I watched at this time was Slacker which was even more frightening given its ramifications. Just a further step along the road of ‘exploring freedoms’ without a guiding map. Pinballpeople bouncing off each other in celebrated narcissistic nihilism. Linklater is a great film-maker documenting downward descent. What else could he do since ‘ascent’ is non-intelligible to him? And I am supposed to celebrate along with him?

      See for example Linklater’s ‘Dazed & Confused’. I don’t think that many people will have seen the trilogy ‘Before Sunrise / Before Sunset / Before Midnight’ but it seemed to me to document, over 20 years (it was shot over a long period of time) the destruction of the possibility of relationship. So fundamental to Occidental categories, its destruction is celebrated. Really, it’s perverse. Really, it is the corruption of youth and especially the corruption of woman. Yay! Now that’s something to thank our stars for! and our noble thoughtful culture-leaders of the previous generations . . .

      I do not think that many people understand that even if it is flawed, even if it is flailing, there is something genuine and important in the developing Anti-Liberalism Movement (for this reason I have mentioned Mark Sedwick’s Key Thinkers of the Radical Right — Behind the New Threat to Liberal Democracy.)

      These people, these philosophers, are confronting the question and the profound problem that arises out of abuse of freedom and liberty — because they see that they live in the outcome of these *perverse choices* which seemed *liberating* but do not really end up that way.

      Why is that? That is the part I cannot understand. Why is the downward descent often florid and creative and ‘fun’?

  2. If you haven’t seen Fonda in ‘Gideon’s Trumpet,’ about the Supreme Court decisión regarding the Miranda ruling, you’re in for a treat. My father always turned down producers who wanted to give him a producing credit, but this one time the Executive Producer did it without his knowledge, and my dad seemed pleased since it was such an important legal precedent. It was a made for TV movie, which would probably not get made today in anyway near the same fashion.

      • Speaking of (another) ‘Gideon’ (All That Jazz) would you kindly offer some comments about this film, All That Jazz? You who have been and are in ‘show time’.

        I can’t figure out what to make of it. It seems brilliant in many ways. But I do not know what to take away from it.

        • It is the indulgent self-flagellation of a sociopath, Bob Fosse, the writer and director, mining his own history of abusing people for artistic, financial and career benefits. It’s entertaining but repellent, if one realizes (as most audiences did not and do not) that it is autobiographical, full of self-pity, and disturbingly typical of a significant chunk of the artistic community.

  3. Peter Fonda was a serviceable actor, although in “Easy Rider”, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper stoled the show. He was nowhere as leftist as his sister “Hanoi Jane” Fonda who posed with a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery and called those soldiers who complained about being tortured liars and dupes.

    • Except for some later performances, I found him irredeemably dull, and I cannot believe that he would have had a career at all without Henry and Jane. If you use talent in place of IQ, Peter was the Fonda Fredo.

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